President Reagan, for all his faults, devised a fair and reasonable measure of a presidency. Are you better off today than you were four years ago? Sure, the fate of every domestic indicator isn't fully tethered to the Oval Office, and some things are out of his control, yet the president's decisions can often serve as a prime mover for economic prosperity -- or failure. With Tuesday night's State of the Union address just hours away, it's appropriate to revisit Reagan's question in the context of the six-year milestone in the Obama presidency.
While any revisionist can rewind to 2009 and suggest that the U.S. economy would've reached its 2015 heights on its own, there's simply no way to prove such a theory without the help of a Flux Capacitor and a souped-up DeLorean. I can tell you this: had Obama done nothing in the face of the Great Recession, I can only imagine the volume of the "lazy, shiftless" screeching from Fox News Channel and AM talk radio. Needless to say, knowing that Obama would've been blamed for a crappy economy (and he was blamed early on -- see also "The Obama Bear Market" and "The Obama Recession" and "The Obama Deficit"), reason dictates that he be given an equal helping of credit for its success. Therefore, if the answer to Reagan's question is "yes," then Obama deserves some of the credit for helping to lift all boats.
My answer is undoubtedly and overwhelmingly "yes." I re-read his first joint-session address from February, 2009, and immediately flashed back to where I was six years ago. If you've listened to my podcast, The Bob & Chez Show, you know some of this, but for those of you who don't, I ended up experiencing nearly every possible financial downside to a deep recession, except resorting to crime and subsequently jail. Here's the list:
1) Short-sale of a business property.
2) Foreclosure and bank auction of my house.
3) The repossession of two cars.
4) A Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
5) IRS back-taxes, along with a tax lien.
7) Forced to shut down my business of 10 years.
8) Harassing creditor phone calls.
My career has always been inextricably linked to the fate of the economy. Investments in writers and media producers, especially producers of animation, always dry up as unnecessary luxuries in a struggling economy. At least, that's been my experience. I've always done well when the economy is strong, and I've always struggled when the economy is weak. In this case, as the economy slowly improved following the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the "stimulus"), my financial situation gradually began to improve, and I learned a big, life-changing lesson: not to be fished into repeating old mistakes -- to be more (small-c) conservative in my spending and savings, and to always be braced for the possibility that it could happen again. Nevertheless, it was the improving economy that gave me enough of a boost to eventually recover fully. My bills are paid, my taxes are paid, my personal debt is gone, I'm remarried and living in Hawaii while gainfully employed as a professional writer, editor and producer. And for the first time since 2005, I have affordable, comprehensive health insurance.
Am I better off than I was six years ago? Hell yes. While I was responsible for a great deal of the heavy lifting, does the president deserve a nod for this? Absolutely. I refuse to believe that there aren't millions of other Americans just like me who once stared into the hideous maw of the Great Recession and eventually pulled ourselves out with the help of an improving economy.
How did it happen?
Six years ago, Obama spoke before Congress and enumerated several areas that would become the big-picture agenda for his administration. He began:
I know that for many Americans watching right now, the state of our economy is a concern that rises above all others. And rightly so. If you haven’t been personally affected by this recession, you probably know someone who has – a friend; a neighbor; a member of your family. You don’t need to hear another list of statistics to know that our economy is in crisis, because you live it every day. It’s the worry you wake up with and the source of sleepless nights. It’s the job you thought you’d retire from but now have lost; the business you built your dreams upon that’s now hanging by a thread; the college acceptance letter your child had to put back in the envelope. The impact of this recession is real, and it is everywhere.
But while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken; though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this:
We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.
I experienced those "sleepless nights," lying awake at 3 a.m. in the grip of utter panic, trying to concoct a way out. My business was "hanging by a thread," too. I had no idea how I was going to send my step-daughter to college, which she'd be starting in 2010. My savings and investments were totally depleted.
Obama's way out:
We have known for decades that our survival depends on finding new sources of energy. Yet we import more oil today than ever before. The cost of health care eats up more and more of our savings each year, yet we keep delaying reform. Our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for. And though all these challenges went unsolved, we still managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our government, than ever before.
Energy independence, healthcare reform, education, the debt.
Today, and with the objective distance of six years, America is the world's leading exporter of energy (serious environmental concerns aside). I and millions of other Americans now have health insurance, erasing the risk of bankruptcy due to illness or injury. The student loan system has been historically reformed and improved; Bush-era mandates rolled back; and other primary/secondary school reforms established, such as Race To The Top. The president has announced his plan for free community college. And in the last six years, the deficit has been reduced by nearly a trillion dollars, slowing the growth of the national debt. Meanwhile, personal debt is significantly down, but statistics show it's due more to default than repayment.
Given the president's stated agenda that night, a purely objective analysis has to show significant accomplishments along those lines.
Indeed, the answers to Reagan's question can often be anecdotally rotten, but generally speaking, Americans should be better off today. At the very least, the climate for improvement is clearly better than it was six years ago. When Reagan first asked the question in 1984, he certainly didn't expect a positive answer from everyone, but the question wasn't necessarily aimed at the fortunes of everyone but, instead, the potential for most to improve in that climate. Certainly, most people were relieved to be out of the energy crisis and the so-called "malaise" of the late 1970s. Likewise, most Americans are relieved to spend less at the gas pump, and to have the opportunity for affordable healthcare should they ever lose their job. In other words, losing your job six years ago was considerably more harrowing than losing it today. So, even in the worst anecdotal cases, opportunities for recovery are considerably more abundant than they were in 2009.
The State of the Union address tonight is another high water mark of the Obama presidency, and it will surely stand in deep contrast and as a major compliment to his remarks in 2009. Even now, it's difficult to deny the administration's overall economic success, even with two years to go. And so we return to the question of the day: Are you better off than you were six years ago?